Having spent several years living in Portland, Oregon, where he recorded and toured with indie rockers Modest Mouse, guitarist Johnny Marr could’ve easily cut his new album, The Messenger, there. Instead, Marr, who plays the Grog Shop on Wednesday, moved back to his native England to record the disc.
“I have this notion, almost a superstition really, that if I went back to the UK, that it’s a good place to get uptight,” he says via phone from a tour stop in Scotland. “I wanted it to not be too relaxed. I didn’t want to make an angry album, but I thought I would be too relaxed in Portland because I’m not from there. I tend to move around that city like a ghost."
In the song “European Me,” Marr even sings about reconnecting with his European roots. He recorded the vocals in Berlin and spent some time writing the songs in Paris.
“I like the cities and buildings and I’m not necessarily talking about old quaint churches and castles or stuff like that,” he says. “I like the post-war architecture. I had these mental post-it notes that I needed to turn into songs.”
It makes sense that Marr, who’s most famous for co-founding the Smiths, would like all things retro. His style of playing with the Smiths (and in stints in bands such as The The and the Cribs) makes it sound like he comes from another era.
“Growing up in the ’70s, that was a time when my friends were into rock music and I was more interested in pop music which back then was made by people who played guitar,” he says. “There’s great guitar on the Sweet records and the T. Rex records. The only rock guy that I liked was Rory Gallagher. I didn’t like Led Zeppelin until I was in my thirties. I always appreciated Jimmy Page for his compositional skills. It didn’t sound like exciting music to me. I was obsessed with 45s and 7-inch singles. It’s like a religion. All the records I liked were shorter than the solos Deep Purple were playing. When I was with the Smiths, I wanted to write songs in some weird ways that sounded like the girl groups or maybe some Supremes b-sides. That was what I was trying to do when I started out.”
That style of playing carries over onto The Messenger, which commences with the moody title track and then delivers catchy, Brit-pop tunes that will appeal to Smiths fans even if Marr's voice isn't as distinctive as Smiths' frontman Morrissey.
“It was important to me that the record was something you could listen to in the daytime, and it made sense,” he says. “Let’s put it this way. You listen to so many records late at night with a glass of wine and a joint. My record isn’t that. It’s the opposite. I wanted to make a record that sounds good on the bus or the way to work or on your way to school or on your headphones walking to the bus. I wanted every song to sound good on the jukebox. I want them to be good at the beginning, middle and end and not be too long. I wanted it be something that every cut would be good live. That was my main consideration."
He says his other main consideration was that his fans would like it.
"I didn’t worry about how it would measure up against my old stuff or what critics would make of it or how it measured up against other bands. I cross my fingers and hope that I got it right. I didn’t expect it to get the attention it has gotten. You put as much work into it as you can and hope for the best."